Originally created 02/17/99

Hall County grapples with changing racial dynamics

GAINESVILLE, Ga. -- As customers hustle in and out of the Western Union nestled between the Fuente De La Salud health store and a unisex hair salon, Toni Martinez eagerly helps them process their orders.

Most want to send their money -- much of it earned doing demanding work in the poultry industry -- to their families in Latin America. Like Ms. Martinez, they were lured to northeast Georgia's Hall County by the prospects of better-paying jobs.

Finding work at the proliferation of poultry plants is the easy part. Assimilating into the predominantly white county, once a Ku Klux Klan hotbed, has been the challenge.

"When I first moved here, they wanted no Spanish people around them. We didn't speak good English and they didn't try to help us," said Ms. Martinez, a native of El Salvador who moved here 14 years ago from California.

But things have started to change and some residents are even optimistic the new-found diversity will be embraced more as Georgia moves into the 21st century.

"It's much better than it was before," said Ms. Martinez, who says she was subjected to racial slurs when she first started working at a poultry plant.

Hall County has one of the largest and fastest growing Hispanic populations in Georgia. In 1996, Hispanics made up about 7.3 percent -- or 8,200 -- of the county's 113,000 residents, up from 4.8 percent in 1990. The percentage could be as high as 10 percent when including illegal immigrants, said Doug Bachtel, a rural sociologist at the University of Georgia.

Statewide, Hispanics account for 3 percent to 5 percent of the population but their numbers are rapidly growing in certain pockets where there is a demand for physical laborers, as in the Vidalia onion fields in the southeast or peach orchards of central Georgia.

Hall County now has a Spanish daily newspaper, two cable TV stations and some schools teach classes in English and Spanish. A third of the city school system's 3,500 students are Hispanic, compared to only about 1 percent in 1989, said Superintendent Alan Zubay.

The increase has forced schools to hire bilingual teachers, offer English as a second language and change some classroom materials.

"The transition has probably been harder on parents than the kids," Mr. Zubay said. "We live in a multicultural world and I think that our kids are getting a wonderful chance to learn with people from different cultures."

But the rapidly changing demographics in a county where Ku Klux Klan members still occasionally march has caused some tension.

"I hear people say they think that Hispanics are all coming over here and getting all the jobs," said Carlene Gooch, 42, who is white. "I think it's good that the U.S. helps the Hispanics, but they need to put a limit on how many come over."

Those types of sentiments led the county to form the Human Relations Council in 1995. The council began holding seminars and town meetings to provide a forum for residents to talk about their concerns.

"At the time, there were many problems between blacks and whites," said Gisela Teeple, executive director of the council. "The problems with the Spanish came later."

Much of the malcontent was -- and still is -- about perceived discrimination in the city schools. Some parents claimed white teachers were deliberately segregating white students from black and Hispanic children.

"Now it's much better," Mrs. Teeple said. "But we still want to encourage better relations between the ethnic groups."

Easier said than done, say many residents, including 27-year-old Paula Nicely.

"It's never gonna happen," said Ms. Nicely, who is black. "They'll just be more quiet. They aren't going to do nothing but sit on their front porch and talk about us just like always."


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